Bilingual learning can help students
Arizona Republic
Feb. 7, 2008
Mark Ryan

What is the best approach to teaching English to young students in our ever more culturally and linguistically diverse public schools?

To begin, we know that children develop the foundation of their first language, the language they use at home, between the ages of 5 and 10.

Next, consider that research has shown that children are quite able to learn more than one language at the same time with no negative consequences.

As a matter of fact, in many places around the globe, bilingualism and multilingualism have been commonplace for centuries.

Yet bilingual education in the United States has been and continues to be a political football.

What is going on here? What do we need to know about acquiring another language?

There is a principle that researchers agree upon when one attempts to learn another language. That principle states that one's knowledge of a first language accelerates the ability to communicate in another language.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the more solid your foundation in Spanish (or any other foreign language) the easier it is to learn English (or any other second language).

Those children who do not have a firm grasp of their first language, and have no opportunity to have formal instruction in that first language, too often simply stumble off the road to learning English.

As a result, they become ashamed of their first language and embarrassed by their lack of fluency in the second.

Simply requiring a program teaching English as a second language in schools without a program to continue to teach students their first language - the child's primary way of communicating with parents, extended families and community members is a classic mistake.

This is not to say that English as a second language does not have important role to play in producing a student fluent in English, but it is only part of the solution.

English as a second lnguage instruction is necessary, but not sufficient.

A program in which a student's first language is cultivated along with an English as a sond lnguage component is the surest way to have that student learn and receive the benefits of the English language.

If helping youngsters learn English in school is an important goal - and it surely is, we must understand the links between language, culture and cognition.

Again, knowledge of language accelerates acquisition of language, and the result of a strong bilingual program is a person who can learn and succeed in more than one language.

Should fostering bilingual students be a goal of our schools?

Well, you can't argue in the name of education that speaking, reading and writing a single language is better than speaking, reading and writing two languages - not in the name of education.